The Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms

Major exhibition at the V&A
March to July 1999

The Golden Throne of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Museum No: 2518(IS)

In 1999, the V&A held the first ever international exhibition on the artistic traditions of the Panjab under Sikh rule to mark the 300th anniversary of the founding of the Khalsa. Major museums in the UK, France, Ireland, India, Pakistan and the USA, the British Royal Collection, and private collectors in Pakistan and the USA, all lent important objects, and the V&A showed famous items such as Maharaja Ranjit Singh's Golden Throne from its own collection.

The exhibition opened with an exploration of the main themes of Sikhism and the significance of Amritsar as the spiritual centre of the faith, before showing the complex artistic heritage of the region in the centuries before Ranjit Singh was proclaimed Maharaja of the Panjab at Lahore in 1801. The focus of the exhibition was the extraordinary world of the Sikh court of Lahore under his rule and during the short period of his successors, shown through jewellery, textiles, arms and armour, metalwork, paintings and illustrated manuscripts.

The martial character of the Sikhs was represented by a two-ton cannon made for the Khalsa army and lent by Woolwich Arsenal, shown near finely-wrought steel weapons, 'turban' style helmets, and armour overlaid with gold.

Ranjit Singh's kingdom was annexed to the British empire in 1849 following two bitterly fought wars, but the story of the deposed young Maharaja, Dalip Singh, provided one of the most fascinating sections of the exhibition. It showed his friendship with Queen Victoria in London through the splendid portrait she commissioned from Franz Winterhalter and the photographs taken of the young man when he stayed at Osborne, the royal residence on the Isle of Wight.

The exhibition closed with a section detailing the continuity of artistic tradition in the Panjab as a whole, and highlighted the role played by the rulers of the smaller Sikh kingdoms in nurturing artists and craftsmen, notably at Patiala.

Over 118,000 people had seen the exhibition by the time it closed at the V&A on 31 July 1999. A slightly reduced version of the show travelled to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto where it was seen by a further 250,000 people.

The Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms was accompanied by a major V&A publication of the same title edited by Susan Stronge. Fully illustrated in colour, the book examines a broad range of cultural, religious and artistic themes in 11 chapters written by leading authors in their respective fields. To order this book visit the V&A bookshop online.


Susan Stronge is a curator in the V&A's Asian Department and specialises in the courtly arts of the Indian sub-continent. She was the curator of the 1999 exhibition The Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms, and editor of the book of the same name. She has published books and articles on a wide range of subjects from Mughal jewellery to arms and armour, and from Bombay pottery to Ranjit Singh's patronage of architecture. Her most recent book, Painting for the Mughal Emperor (V&A Publications, 2002), describes the V&A's collection of Mughal paintings done for the emperors Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan between about 1560 and 1650.


Mr and Mrs H. S. Narula
the Committee & Supporters of
'By The Five Rivers' event

The Indian Government Tourist Office

The Metropolitan Police

The Cambridge Malaysian Commonwealth Trust


The Maharaja Duleep Singh Centenary Trust
Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jatha, Birmingham

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Visitors to the Sikh Kingdoms exhibition, 1999
'Maharaja Ranjit Singh', gouache on paper, Museum no. IS 282-1955
Visitors to the Sikh Kingdoms exhibition, 1999
Bhangra (folk dance) performed at the V&A, 1999
Visitors to the Sikh Kingdoms exhibition, 1999
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